Ukitake was tired—so tired that he wasn’t even bothered by the scowling Ichigo who glowered behind them, slamming the door of the room closed. Ichigo wanted to keep on riding. There was a day when Ukitake had had that kind of fervor, but by now he knew a body’s limits. So Ukitake ignored him, and rubbed at his face. His whole body ached; maybe he was getting old. That wasn’t a nice thought.
“The kid can take the bed,” Shunsui murmured, and Ukitake nodded in agreement. There was only one room- with one bed- open at the inn they were staying at for the night. Quietly, they both propped their packs up against the wall.
Out of the corner of his eye he caught Shunsui glancing at him, and the lines of Shunsui’s body spoke to Ukitake’s own weariness. Maybe we’re both getting old.
That was an even more troubling idea. Somehow, Shunsui getting old truly bothered him. That just wasn’t right. Shunsui was so alive, full of laughter and liveliness and good.
Ukitake swallowed, guilt jabbing him in the heart. Part of the reason that he himself was so tired was the emotional upheaval of seeing, traveling, being with Shunsui again. They were about to sleep in the same room together.
This was probably true on the opposite side of the equation.
Is that what I’ve done? Made him old? He’d managed to free himself from the plaguing doubts while away from Shunsui. He’d told himself Shunsui was better off, that Shunsui would recover just fine, that Shunsui would love again… But here, faced with reality, he was beginning to understand the true repercussion of his choice.
His chest tightened very painfully, and darkness pricked at the sides of his vision.
“Jyuushirou?” There was a hand on his arm, and Ukitake jerked, struggling to regain control of his breathing. He took a deep, shuddering breath.
“I… I’m okay,” he said slowly, and the hand withdrew. He felt colder, and he realized that that was the first time that Shunsui had touched him since they’d been reunited. His arm tingled where Shunsui’s hand had been, and that was further proof that he was in trouble. I haven’t healed at all either. Neither of us has healed, have we? We’re a gaping wound.
He forced himself to look up at his old lover, who was watching him with concern in his eyes, most of his guard momentarily dropped in worry for Ukitake. He suddenly felt like weeping, but he just nodded and repeated. “I’m fine, really. It’s not… that.” Shunsui never ever forgot his illness.
“If you say so,” Shunsui answered slowly, and then turned away. “Be careful, Ukitake. We’re about to get into a fight. We need you healthy.”
Even though he had seen the worry in Shunsui’s eyes, he felt a bit stung despite himself. Shunsui’s worry had always been about Ukitake, not the future fights. But why would he still feel that way? I treated him horribly; I hurt him badly. Do I really even know him any more? What the hell am I doing?
Ukitake was awake, curled up on his side, when he saw and heard Shunsui stir. He quickly shut his eyes—there was no way he wanted Shunsui to know that he’d been watching him sleep, watching the slow, steady rise and fall of his chest. Jerking awake from his nightmares, he had found that even though he’d been away from Shunsui for so long, even though things were incredibly tense between them, he was desperately afraid of losing him again. Especially to something as final as death. Ukitake knew that going up against someone like Aizen was probably more dangerous than anything they’d attempted before. And that frightened him. Ukitake didn’t like being frightened.
“I can hear you worrying from over here.” Shunsui’s voice was low because Ichigo was still sleeping. Ukitake reluctantly opened his eyes to find the other man regarding him steadily, propped up on his side.
He bit his lip and shrugged slightly. “I don’t like the feel of this,” he said, echoing Shunsui’s words of not too long ago.
Shunsui’s lips pressed together into a thin line. “I don’t either. Sheriff Aizen… this is bad business. Bad business indeed.”
Ukitake slowly sat up. “This may not end well.”
“But we’re going to try anyway, aren’t we? I don’t think any of us are capable of letting this go. There’s too much at stake. When a regular Sheriff goes bad, that’s trouble enough. Aizen has too much power. He must be stopped.”
Ukitake nodded slowly in agreement, and then hesitantly said, “I wonder… how much of this Isshin knew.” With the wily farmer, that was often a question. “He was clearly worried. He said… that if anyone could do this, we could. Do you… do you think that’s true?”
Shunsui’s face froze. “Five years ago, we would have had a good chance at it. Now? I don’t know, Ukitake. I don’t know anything about us any more,” he said bitterly.
With that, he pushed himself up, standing up and stretching. “Wakey, wakey!” he called cheerfully, kicking the bed in which the Kurosaki boy lay asleep. As always, Shunsui could slip that mask on so quickly. That had always been harder for Ukitake.
Ukitake barely heard Ichigo’s indignant squawk, and how he missed his shouting was incredible, but he just stared blankly ahead, lost in his thoughts and regret and memories.
Ukitake absently stroked the neck of his horse, the brown hair soft under his fingers. Sentarou neighed and turned his head, affectionately bumping Ukitake's chest. Ukitake laughed softly and patted Sentarou's nose. His horses had always been in tune with his emotions, and Sentarou knew he needed a little comforting.
Ukitake looked toward the main source of his disquiet, who was staring at the pair with unreadable eyes. Shunsui and Ukitake gazed at each other for a moment, and then broke the stare uncomfortably.
"... let's go back there." Shunsui glanced toward the back of the inn. Away from prying eyes and ears. Ukitake nodded and gave Sentarou a final pat on the neck, while Shunsui grabbed a startled, protesting Ichigo, pushing him toward their destination. Ukitake followed behind, discreetly eying the few people around.
The three entered a small grouping of trees, and Ukitake and Shunsui both lounged against tree trunks opposite each other. Ichigo just crossed his arms, scowling.
"So we're very close to Hueco County at this point..." Shunsui began.
"We know that!" Ichigo interrupted. "And we should be there by now!" He somehow managed to glare at both of them at the same time, even though the trees they leaned against we several feet apart.
Shunsui raised an eyebrow and peered at him from under his hat. "My, it must have been some other boy's stomach I heard growling, then."
A bit of red dusted Ichigo's cheekbones at that, and Ukitake couldn't help but smile. He wasn't sure he'd ever seen Ichigo blush before. "And it's never a good idea to go hungry during a rescue mission, right?"
Shunsui grinned at him, his eyes crinkling. Ukitake's heart skipped a beat. "Oh yes." He agreed, nodding. "It can do terrible things to your aim," he said, mock serious. "There's nothing more distracting than a rumbling stomach!"
Ukitake actually chuckled, and he couldn't remember the last time he'd done that. It felt good, even if it was just for that moment.
"I hate you both." Ichigo sulked, and Shunsui smiled sweetly.
Something changed in the air all of a sudden, and the back of Ukitake’s neck itched.
That was the feeling he always got when he was being watched, or when something dangerous was about to happen. Unfortunately, the two usually went together.
He casually glanced over at Shunsui, trying not to give anything away to the observers. You always want to keep that advantage. He swallowed. His experience told him that Shunsui would know something was going on too. But could he trust in that? It had been so long… he didn’t know what he could rely on any more. Everything felt off balance.
His friend nonchalantly tilted his head, briefly meeting Ukitake’s eyes, while still continuing an argument with an oblivious Ichigo.
He knew. Shunsui knew. Sharp relief flooded through Ukitake, and the part of him that wasn't alert and ready for a fight relaxed and loosened inside his chest. Not just because he knew he had backup, but because here was another thing that hadn't changed.
He held on to that thought when the shooting began.
There wasn't a shout, not an amateurish yell of defiance, not even an introduction. Ukitake just heard the crack of a gunshot, and Shunsui suddenly moved and pushed Ichigo out of the way, the bullet whizzing past his head to embed itself firmly in the bark of the tree behind them. Shunsui immediately whirled around and leapt forward, purposely drawing them away from Ichigo, if Ukitake knew him, his pistol already in his hand.
Ukitake had a short moment to take in that familiar look; Shunsui's eyes narrowed and his face set in extreme concentration, for once giving something his all. It was an expression that Ukitake had always found to be astonishingly attractive, and that apparently hadn't changed with age. But he had no time to dwell on that, already returning fire at the blue-haired man who had now opened fire on him.
He felt himself relaxing into the rhythm again, settling into a state achieved only through incredible stress—
There were four men, and though the leader was quick and seemed experienced, the rest weren't really troublesome. Ukitake knew he had Shunsui to thank for that. He and Shunsui moved as one, both instinctively knowing what the other would do, and using that to their advantage. Shooting from both sides and backing each other up—it was almost as though they had the enemies circled.
It went on as quickly as any fight, the enemies—Aizen's men, Ukitake was willing to bet, which meant the sheriff had already gotten word from the goons at the sheriff station—slowly losing the battle as the two old partners moved closer together, until they were almost fighting back to back, their movements sure and strong.
Finally, the one with the blue hair, the leader, fell, with a nasty shot to the shoulder and leg.
Ukitake stood there, breath whistling in his throat and adrenaline shivering through him. He could hear Shunsui doing the same, and that felt so right. For a moment, he was back in time again.
"Holy fuck, that was insane. What the hell are you two?" A voice choked out. Ukitake looked over and saw Ichigo still sitting on the ground where Shunsui had pushed him, staring at both of them with wide eyes. Ukitake smirked slightly. That wasn’t the first time they’d caused that reaction, not by a long shot.
"Nothing," Shunsui replied, his voice flat, and Ukitake felt like he’d been shot. Shunsui brushed past Ukitake, not looking at him. "We're nothing any more."
Anger and grief choked him as reality came crashing back down. Why did Shunsui have to ruin the moment like that? Why couldn't they just savor the fact that part of their partnership, at least, had survived? He felt like screaming—at Shunsui, or at himself. He had to get out of the woods.
Ukitake ran a hand through his white hair, inwardly trying to shake off the remnants of that nightmare. He paused at the bottom of the stairs, his eyes flicking over toward the door that led to the bar area. There weren’t many times he’d been so tempted to go drink, but this was one of them. He shook his head, sliding his hand down to gently rub at his forehead.
The dream had shaken him up, calling back memories that haunted Ukitake, memories that he had managed to avoid thinking about for a long time. But it was early in the day, and Ukitake didn’t want to resort to alcohol just yet, though there had been a time when he would’ve. I’ll go talk to Shunsui, he decided. There was something about his best friend that always cheered him up.
He walked over and opened the door to the bar, glancing around the room. Shunsui wasn’t there. He moved back and closed the door behind him. Hmm. He shoved his hands in his pockets and crossed the room again, stepping outside the back exit of the saloon, only to stop dead in his tracks, his mouth going dry.
His partner was practicing hand to hand combat, which he preferred using to guns when possible. His always present multi-colored shirt was slung on the fence because of the already scorching heat of the day. He was frozen in place, and he couldn’t take his eyes off Shunsui’s chest, how the sweat glistened on his muscles.The graceful way he moved and the expression of relaxed concentration made Ukitake’s heart pound. He backed up, stumbling a bit, jerking himself away from the gorgeous sight.
He was so relieved that he was in the back of the saloon, not the front. If anyone had been there he wouldn’t have known what to say, how to explain the look that was surely on his face. He walked quickly to the stairs, bracing himself against the wall as he climbed.
He reached his room and entered, sitting heavily down on his bed.
From the moment he’d met Shunsui that first day in the bar, he’d found him attractive. How could he not? Shunsui Kyouraku was a very handsome person, anyone would admit, with that gorgeous hair, those toned muscles, and that flirtatious grin. Ukitake could easily list all the little things about Shunsui that were mesmerizing, and that was the problem. He’d tried to ignore his subconscious, but obviously that hadn’t worked.
He knew that Shunsui liked women. Who didn’t? Shunsui was notorious for it. Having an infatuation (that was all he was willing to call it) for a notorious womanizer was more than a bad idea. But even though he knew it was going to end badly, he could not make himself pull away. Shunsui was too nice, too charming, too clever. There was too much affection in his eyes when he looked at Ukitake. He made Ukitake feel like he belonged. Like he was at home. It was an intoxicating feeling.
And Shunsui always stood a bit too close to him, was always touching him, a hand on Ukitake’s arm, an arm slung across his shoulders, a hand ruffling his hair… it was enough to drive him crazy. Crazier, anyway, Shunsui would say with that grin.
Ukitake slumped back onto his bed, his hands covering his face, pressing hard against his eyes as if trying to ward off the headache that threatened.
Yeah, he was screwed.
He froze, and quickly pulled his hands away from his face. Damn it, not now. He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself down, but that just made Shunsui look more concerned.
He felt the mattress move under him as Shunsui sat down, the old springs squeaking slightly. A warm hand settled on his shoulder. “Is something wrong?”
“I’m fine,“ he answered automatically.
There was silence for a moment, and then he heard Shunsui sigh. Something in the sound made Ukitake open his eyes.
Shunsui was staring at him tiredly with sadness and an almost hidden bit of hurt. Ukitake swallowed. “It’s kind of ironic,” Shunsui said softly. “You’re one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. You’re so… kind. You could be friends with almost anyone. It takes a while to realize how private you actually are.”
Ukitake winced. Damn it. There wasn’t even anger in Shunsui’s eyes, and that made it all worse. The guilt pressed down on him. “I… you’re a good man, Shunsui. The best.” Shunsui blinked at him, pleased but confused. Ukitake reached over and laid his palm over the hand that rested on his shoulder. Shunsui’s skin was hot and sweaty and rough, and he ignored the pleasure that quivered through his body at the contact. “I’m sorry.”
Shunsui shrugged slightly, careful not to dislodge Ukitake’s hand. “It’s just the way you are.”
That is so Shunsui. Ukitake’s chest ached, and it wasn’t because of his illness. “But you deserve better from me.” He squeezed Shunsui’s hand lightly. “Look, I…” He wished they’d had this conversation when what was on his mind was something that he could tell his friend about. The fact that he could barely keep himself from staring at Shunsui’s chest and arms and face, and fuck he hadn’t had it this bad since… well, a long, long time. And on that note, perhaps there is something I can say that wouldn’t be a lie. He’d completely forgotten about the nightmare after seeing Shunsui, and considering what the nightmare had been about, that was ironic. “I‘m just… distracted. I had a dream about someone I used to know.”
He wasn’t sure what showed on his face when he said that, but Shunsui’s eyebrows went up. “A girl?” he asked, and, yeah, some of his pain must have shown through, judging by the inflection in Shunsui‘s voice.
“Something like that.” Ukitake answered, knowing Shunsui was so close, but in the same time so far off. “Yeah. Someone I loved.”
Shunsui’s eyes were sympathetic. “It ended badly?”
“They‘re dead.” He found himself answering, mouth twisting and grief shooting through him, and he wasn’t sure if he’d ever seen that expression on Shunsui’s face before.
“Oh my god, Jyuushirou… I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have pushed.” He breathed, looking wretched, and Ukitake propped himself up on his elbows.
“Don’t be stupid. You deserve to know. You’re my best friend,” he said firmly, wanting to banish the guilt in Shunsui’s eyes. “Besides… it was a long time ago. I just...” He shrugged. “It’s still difficult to remember. But I‘m okay, just… thinking.”
Ukitake shook his head. “It’s all right.”
“If you say so…” Shunsui trailed off and moved forward, slipping onto the bed next to Ukitake, his hand brushing over Ukitake’s in reassurance. Ukitake’s throat went dry and uncomfortable heat spread through him. Ukitake slowly lowered himself back down, staring at the ceiling,
Shunsui always knew what Ukitake needed, and after a moment, Shunsui began telling a story about something that had gone on in the town the past week, while Ukitake had been away helping a friend, and Ukitake let himself be comforted by the solid warmth of Shunsui’s body, and the familiar cadences of his voice.
Flashback: Later in the past
Ukitake ducked, then turned and shot the final guard straight in the heart, his face blank—though people who knew him well might have seen the fury that simmered beneath.
Usually he tried to avoid killing people, if possible, but he needed to return this way, and his mission was too precious to risk. Besides, he couldn’t muster enough sympathy to care, in this case.
"Don't mess with Shunsui," he hissed to the dead man, and then stalked past the corpse, his gun still held at the ready in case there were any other men left.
He pushed the door to the barn open slowly, the creak unnaturally loud in his ears. His eyes flickered around checking for any danger. Hopefully no one was left; several men had come rushing out of the barn after he’d taken down the original guards.
No immediate threats assessed, he cautiously stepped into the barn. He heard a muffled sound from further in, and picked up his pace. Edging around an old, decaying stall, he came upon his objective: Shunsui, gagged and bound to a chair. Cool relief flowed through him. Though his friend’s clothes had blood on them, he was still alive. Even covered in blood and dirt, Shunsui Kyouraku was a beautiful sight. Until that minute, he hadn’t acknowledged to himself how worried he’d been.
He hurried over and slipped the gag off Shunsui. Opening his mouth to tease him about having to rescue him, he was cut off by Shunsui's angry growl. "I told you to get away!"
"Don't be silly," Ukitake said, stiffening. "I don't care what friends he has; I'm never leaving you behind." He slipped his gun back into its holster.
"That's..." Shunsui’s words cut off, his eyes on Ukitake's shoulder. "You're bleeding." His voice was eerily, dangerously calm.
Ukitake winced; he'd hoped it wouldn't be that noticeable. But from the pain he was experiencing, the wound was worse than he'd thought it was. "I am," he agreed shortly. "Now be quiet and let me untie you." He reached over with the hand of his good arm and forced his wounded one to help too. It wasn’t that big a deal; he’d had to work with injuries before.
Shunsui was very still and very quiet as he undid the first knot, but as he moved to the next one, he realized that Shunsui was shaking very slightly. He looked up in concern. His friend's face was very pale, and he looked like he was going to be sick. His eyes were fixed on the growing red stain on Ukitake's shirt. "Shunsui," he said sharply, and brown agonized eyes rose to meet his.
"You shouldn't have come. I'm not… worth it."
Ukitake jerked slightly back as if he'd been slapped. "What?" he said incredulously, but Shunsui's gaze held firm. He leaned forward, continuing to untie the second knot, but this time with more force than necessary, his whole body tense and angry. "I never want to hear you say that again, do you understand me?" he said, a thread of danger in his voice. He jerked the knot open, and moved onto the next one.
"Shut the hell up, Shunsui," Ukitake snapped.
Shunsui shut up, staring at him. Ukitake wondered idly if he'd ever sworn in front of Shunsui before. Those thoughts distracted him from his greater concern—what had Shunsui's life been like, not to think he was worth that? "You're worth much more than one stupid wound. For you… I would have done much more than this."
Ukitake just glanced at him. "Perhaps I am, but not because of that. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had, and you are one of the best men I’ve ever known. You understand me like no one else has.” You mean everything to me. “And tell me, Shunsui, what would you have done if it had been me in your place?"
Shunsui didn't answer, glancing away, a faint blush dusting his tanned cheeks. Ukitake raised an eyebrow, feeling warmed despite himself.
"That's what I thought," he said quietly, pulling the last knot loose. "We're partners, right?"
Shunsui smiled weakly. "Partners. Yes."
"I'll always have your back, and you'll have mine." Shunsui nodded as last knot fell apart. Ukitake reached out and offered him a hand. Shunsui took it, his partner's hand warm and sweaty and comforting against his own.
"Let's get out of here, then," he said as he pulled Shunsui to his feet. Shunsui's hand lingered a bit too long in his own, but Ukitake didn't mind. He smiled at Shunsui, eyes warm. Partners. “We have work to finish, now, don’t we? The men here certainly weren’t all of the gang left, let alone their friends.”
Shunsui quirked an eyebrow. “You want to continue?”
“Of course.” His eyes glinted threateningly. “You don’t mess with my partner.”
His friend stared at him for a moment, and then hesitantly started to smile. He nudged Ukitake lightly in the shoulder that wasn‘t injured. “Thanks.”
Ukitake looked away, feeling his cheeks heat. “Anytime, partner. Now let’s go get our wounds fixed up.”
The adrenaline rush from the fight made Shunsui aware of many things he shouldn't have, like the way it seemed time was standing still, or that the earth under his horse's hoofs belonged to the same cursed town the fight had taken place in (the Severed Town, as it were, separating the Seireitei and Hueco counties), or that Ukitake was staring at him.
It had bothered him during the fight itself, as well, because he was lucid enough to feel it: feel Ukitake watching him; feel the fire in his belly burning anew the moment he held the grip of his pistol and faced a proper enemy for the first time in months; feel the terror of almost getting shot, of reopening wounds, and mostly, he could feel the bond he used to have with Ukitake burst open the second their backs touched and Shunsui was able to count Ukitake's measured breaths and shoot during the exhales.
During the fight it had brought them victory; it had even brought him joy, made him forget all the crap that had happened between them. Because for those terrifying moments, they were partners again. And Shunsui never thought to even deny how much he needed a partnership like that in his life, he always had. There was no match for Ukitake because Shunsui wasn't willing to find another. Perhaps a small, dirty corner in his soul had always anticipated his lover's return.
He never pretended not to give a shit, but he never imagined it would hurt so much, either. That after the fight he would turn around with a grin to congratulate Ukitake, maybe even kiss him, and then remember it all.
And then he simply couldn't look at him.
He'd mounted his horse without speaking, not sure whether he'd hoped Ukitake and Ichigo had followed his example or not. He hadn't done anything wrong, really—they had to get the hell away from those woods—but he knew his intentions hadn't been exactly pure.
He just wanted to get away from Ukitake. To a place with drinks, preferably.
He was riding furiously toward the outskirts of the town, his fellows behind him. He knew Ukitake must be worrying, but he couldn't manage thinking about it. Just give me one night.
Right on time, Shunsui looked to his right to find a rundown bar called The Bleeding Moon, open and calling to him. He gave his horse a leg cue and slowed down. He certainly hadn't expected to dismount his horse only to be confronted by an angry Ukitake.
There was fire in his eyes, his mouth an angry line, and he was right there, and Shunsui could never ignore him. Simply put, he snapped. "What?"
His breath caught when Ukitake grabbed him by the sleeve and dragged him away from the horses and Ichigo. Shunsui shook him off. They both knew he didn't get upset easily. Don't bring it out of me.
Ukitake folded his arms across his chest. "Why are you behaving like this?"
He narrowed his eyes. "What's it to you?"
That must have hurt. Ukitake didn't seem angry anymore, mostly… shocked. Actually pained. As though Shunsui… That, he hadn't meant to cause. Never that.
"Calm down, Kyouraku, we won."
How am I to explain it to you? Don't you already know? "I…" He took a deep breath. "We won, but I needed you. I haven't needed you for five goddamn years! Why the hell did you even leave if you only wanted to—"
"Wanted to?" Ukitake hissed, as he always did when he was annoyed. Some things never change. "I'd never wanted to set out on this goddamn journey; I'd never intended to see you again."
Shunsui gritted his teeth. "Well jeez, you're making me blush."
"All I am saying is that we're both suffering here."
And really, after a tiring fight and exhausting mental torment, Shunsui couldn't keep watch on his mouth. "I don't want to hear that. I need a drink. We'll get your girl tomorrow." He tried to pass Ukitake, but was met with a hand on his chest and a shove with notable strength behind it.
But the shove wasn't enough, was it? Ukitake just had to step closer, into Shunsui's personal space, so he was able to smell him and feel him and nearly taste—
"Jyuushirou, please let go." It was out before Shunsui knew it. I can't take you anymore.
Ukitake's eyes widened in shock again, still so sweet Shunsui could have drowned in them. He quickly narrowed them, biting his lip, and after a forever or two let go of Shunsui's shirt and took a few steps back.
Now, for my scotch. Knowing they were both hurting didn't change anything, didn't resolve this mess. He looked at the bar and set off, yelling behind him, "We'll get back on track tomorrow." Will we?
Being alone was almost as satisfying as the glass in his hand.